To the Editor:
Phillip M. Richards’s thoughtful recollections of his time at Yale describe clashing black and white cultures amid decaying academic standards and social values [“Black and Blue at Yale—A Memoir,” April]. His 1968 vantage point coincided with the counterculture youth movement’s overreaching itself in violence and self-indulgence. Focusing on that historical juncture, however, diverts attention from the deep restructuring of American identities during the black and feminist movements, which affected all institutions. In the summer of 1968, black soldiers like myself agonized over standby orders to quell the urban uprisings of dispossessed blacks. In 1969, I entered the University of Illinois and witnessed higher education’s still-ongoing transformation toward democratic inclusion.
Rejecting black subordination and white privilege, baby-boomers struggled with the internal demons created by their childhood socialization in pre-civil-rights America. Blacks felt shamed by racial stigmas and previous generations’ acquiescence in Jim Crow; whites bore the guilt of the generations that had allowed the repression. Each confronted ugly stereotypes made salient by grossly unequal education and employment opportunities. The surprise of Mr. Richards’s white classmates at his classroom prowess was one side of the apartheid coin; the flipside of presumed black intellectual inferiority was revealed to me by the visible pleasure my black classmates took at my ability to meet a professor’s challenge that the white students could not.
Expurgating social demons, we sometimes stumbled. Some guilt-ridden whites capitulated to unreasonable demands from blacks demanding redress; whites in denial saw no merit in any black demand for equality. In his envy for the supposedly “balanced” African-American Rhodes Scholar fencer who distanced himself from other blacks, Mr. Richards fails to see the pathology in evading one’s blackness that he sees in others’ search for a mystical black essence.
Fleeing shame, blacks made sincere attempts to create identities that they thought were consonant with ancestral Africa. The quest for an “authentic” African-American self bestowed near absolute supremacy on cultural nationalism. This was the high period of dashiki wearing and afro hair-styles. I was a twenty-two-year-old Vietnam veteran who was self-assured enough to develop white and black friendships. Younger undergraduates self-segregated themselves. The race to be the blackest of blacks made it a liability to have white friends, light skin, straight hair, and standard speech. The most extreme cultural nationalists, proclaiming “black is beautiful” and demanding black studies, were light-skinned brothers and sisters sporting afros the height of African ant hills.
It was cultural nationalism that bequeathed black studies to the academy. Intellectually honest blacks like Kenneth Clark and the Nobel laureate economist Sir Arthur Lewis criticized these programs, often on point. Curricula designed with input from twenty-year-olds in identity crises were frequently weak. I viewed the fledgling black-studies program at the University of Illinois as a frivolous feel-good indulgence and avoided it.
But things quickly improved. Today, the black-studies program at Illinois boasts excellent faculty and, like the vast majority of such programs, has a strong curriculum. Most of the programs are disliked by the cultural nationalists. At Mr. Richards’s alma mater, where I teach, careful planning has helped avoid many pitfalls. Before he graduated, the faculty included English professor Charles Davis, art historian Robert Thompson, and the rising historian John Blassingame. Soon a visiting Sir Arthur Lewis and I co-taught a course in urban economic development, and Lewis publicly retracted his earlier assessment of black studies. By the 80’s, Yale students interested in black studies could take courses with professors like K. Anthony Appiah, Hazel Carby, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Edmund Gordon, Bell Hooks, Adolph Reed, Robert B. Stepto, and Cornel West, among others.
Race relations remain problematic throughout America, but (in contrast to Mr. Richards’s days on campus) hardly a Yale student takes much notice of interracial friendships these days. About those dead white men rumored to be banned from the academy—we still read them, and live ones too. Thanks to the 60’s, when I teach W.E.B. Du Bois, I also teach Hegel, and my students and I learn more from both.
New Haven, Connecticut
Phillip M. Richards writes:
Gerald Jaynes offers some suggestive formulations and autobiographical notes in response to my own, and raises some important questions. The late 1960’s and early 70’s did indeed see a transformation in black identity, a transformation that complicated the university’s secondary role of socializing students for American life, especially in its higher echelons. In taking on the task of educating large numbers of black students, Yale was forced to confront the issue of what it meant to be “black and blue.”
On campuses throughout America, the task of socialization has shadowed increased African-American participation in academic life in general and in black studies in particular. Black professors, whatever their inclinations, find themselves cast as mentors to African-American students and junior colleagues. But the political and even therapeutic roles often assumed by the black professoriate can put pressure on their role as intellectual guides.
Even at an elite school like Yale, intellectual development often demands a kind of involvement with the wider campus that, given the norms of modern African-American bourgeois life, may be seen as “non-black” or as an evasion of “blackness.” Mr. Jaynes illustrates this problem when he portrays his own admirably mature progress through the University of Illinois as in some sense exemplary while rejecting as pathological the experience of my “balanced” Rhodes Scholar classmate. As he sees it, the style and success with which my classmate engaged in academic and social activities at Yale was an unacceptable deviation from black social norms.
As academic and social instructors, black intellectuals must learn to accept their black students’ variegated patterns of success, even those patterns that are not identifiably “black.” In the meantime, intellectually engaged black students may have to practice some very rugged individualism if they are to find themselves.
Clearly, the norms associated with “healthy” and “deviant” blackness can also seep into academic work itself, especially in the humanities. In my recent book, Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African-American Letters, I show how this has happened in black academic literary culture. The black humanist’s move into the newly integrated academy takes him into identity politics—a dangerous sphere toward which we should all be a little warier.